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    The name Purposeful Play is a perfect paradox. That’s why I like it! The paradox is that the very definition of play, according to play experts such as Stuart Brown is that it is purposeless. In other words we do it for its own sake – because it’s fun rather than because it’s good for us or someone told us to do it.

    When we were kids we loved to play – remember? We could play all day and only stopped to eat or change the game? We didn’t have to make an effort. If we have to motivate ourselves to do it then it’s not play, it’s more like work. But as adults, most of us have forgotten this. I know I certainly had before I encountered clowning (and I still need to remind myself regularly!). So, we can be purposeful about creating space for play. That’s really at the heart of what Purposeful Play is about – providing opportunities to find your play and clown so that we can access it more easily in the everyday world.


    The name Purposeful Play came from a conversation at an event I was involved in called Rock and a Heart Place. I work as a consultant with a niche organisation development practice called Corporate Community and in 2010, right at the beginning of the recession in Ireland, we invited people we work with – mostly from public sector organisations – to join us in a conversation about the impact the crash was having and what we can do to combat it.


    A common theme across local development, health care, NGOs and community development worlds was how it was increasingly difficult to do creative or innovative things because managers and leaders were afraid to try anything new or to spend money on what would likely be perceived as non-essentials. All of us in the room shared our own feelings of fear and uncertainty at what the future might bring. We concluded that creating the conditions where we could all be more playful at work would help. We were depressed at the thought of trying to introduce more humanity and playfulness in the contracted and conservative work environments we were familiar with. Someone piped up “we need to be purposefully playful”. This felt so right – it really struck a chord with me and I have been trying to figure out what this means and what it might look like ever since!

    A year earlier I’d had my first encounter with clowning when I was setting out to do my thesis as part of a masters in organisation change and consulting at Ashridge Business School in the UK. Chris Seeley a visiting lecturer that came to advise us about using an action research approach for our dissertations, was also a trained a clown facilitator with Nose to Nose in the UK. A group of us were very curious about links that Chris was making to creative expression and different ways of knowing and clown as a way of exploring this. Clearly, it was all very heady! We persuaded her to run a clown workshop for us and that was anything but heady!


    Through it I discovered something about myself that really surprised me – I was disconnected from the natural child-like joy of playing just for the sake of it. In fact even though I really wanted to let myself play, I struggled to fully and freely take that permission. I’ve since thought:

    – What if it’s not just me but lots of people that experience this disconnection?
    – What if we don’t even realise it?
    – And what if we could find ways to reconnect to our playful selves?
    – Could this make a positive difference in the world?

    Often I feel very alone with this idea and sense of purpose but I am not alone. In the UK and States I have encountered other people – women to be honest – who came to clown for similar reasons and I find inspiration through them.

    I had no natural draw to the idea of clowning. Like many of you I imagine, the images in my head were not that attractive. But the images in our heads are limited. Clowning as I know it is nothing like circus clowning or mime and couldn’t be further from the scary and evil clowns in some movies and books. Clowning is essentially sharing and celebrating our common humanity – with all our triumphs and our failings. For clowns it’s all in there. You can’t ‘do’ clown by just putting on costume and make up – instead it is an inner state and play and enjoyment are the main access points. Clown is about being present to ourselves and others and accepting how we are fully. In that way it is very aligned with mindfulness and meditation – but it’s definitely more fun!

    Nose to Nose’s approach to clowning is theatrical and improvisational and is grounded in non-judgment and unconditonal positive regard. This is the kind of clowning and play I facilitate.

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    Clowning is hard to sell – no doubt about it! Partly because we have mistaken ideas about it (thinking of circus clowns, scary clowns etc…) and partly because giving it a go involves real courage and taking a personal risk. For me the unique selling point of clowning is that through it we can practice letting ourselves ‘be’ by having fun, playing and allowing ourselves to be silly which is all relatively purposeless activity. The benefits though are entirely purposeful and far-reaching. If you experience stress due to constant change and uncertainty for example, then clowning helps us to be more OK with that. Over time, clowning is helping me in so many ways:

    – I take myself less seriously now.
    – I laugh more and more easily
    – I worry less and trust more especially about the future.
    – I am less self-critical.
    – I am more confident about being seen and performing.
    – I can be strong and vulnerable at the same time.
    – I feel more fulfilled because I express my creativity and imagination more.
    – I can slow down more easily
    – I listen better and am more receptive to others
    – And most importantly I am getting better at taking my own experience seriously.

    How many experiences are we having in our lives right now that are fun and energising, that leave us feeling utterly connected to people we have only just met and at the same time are really beneficial and helpful to us in a whole variety of ways?

    My clown friend Syantani and I

    My clown friend Syantani and I

    My personal motivation for Purposeful Play is not about clowning exactly – it is really that clown is the best way I know to connect with my personal conviction that the world would be a better place for all of us if we could be more fully human at home, in work and in our communities. This means bringing heart and soul back into work places – to show up as we really truly are in all our human strength and frailty. This brings me right back to why I love paradoxes. The clown archetype can hold it all – there is no wrong and there is no right, there just is you, fully being you and me, being fully me. This takes real courage of course, so clowning can easily be dismissed as frivolous and unimportant but don’t be deceived – the red nose clown mask is extraordinarily powerful.

    Michael Leunig illustration

    Michael Leunig illustration

    Brené Brown has created a movement around understanding the power of vulnerability. At a Purposeful Play workshop clowning allows you to be vulnerable in a very safe and held way – in a way that touches others making them laugh and cry along with you. We are not laughing at the clown, we are laughing with the clown in recognition of our common humanity. I find it a relief because I can let go of many of the expectations and judgments I have of myself. Please come and try it for yourself. I am interested in talking to anyone for whom these ideas really resonate.


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